Though the initial spark of a relationship is often the most celebrated in terms of passion, excitement, and joy, long-term partnerships often bring a deeper sense of fulfillment. Things get real once you truly get to know someone — including their eccentricities and deepest hang-ups — and with that reality often comes hardship. After all, who among us isn’t just the slightest bit flawed? And complicated? And difficult? Here, we’ll take a moment to explore the various stages of long-term love, and how real couples have made it work over the years, and years, and years. We also spoke with Esther Boykin, LMFT, CEO of Group Therapy Associates and Therapy Is Not a Dirty Word, to get some insight about how love changes in a relationship — and how to navigate when the going gets rough.
If, paraphrasing Tolstoy, happy couples are all alike, and every unhappy couple is unhappy in its own way, we wanted to find out just how different couples faced the serious — and various — issues that are bound to arise over the course of a long relationship.
The specifics of what works for one couple won’t work for everyone, in other words, but there are a few broader ideas to keep in mind. Above all, Boykin says, it’s vital to remain in a state of openness. If you’re stuck in expectations — or worse, resentment — you’ll never learn anything new about your partner. “Stay curious and be intentional about engaging in each other’s separate interests,” she says. “Your partner is not the same person they were when you met them five, 10, or 20 years ago, and neither are you.”
If you can remember to allow your partner to continue growing and changing, and continue recognizing the individuality of your partner and your relationship rather than comparing and despairing, you’ll both be happier. “Remaining happily together requires you to choose to truly get to know each other over and over again,” Boykin says. “Don’t get caught by mindlessness and assumptions — you may know a lot of core things about them over the years, but who they are in the present moment is ever-evolving.”
No one knows that better than a couple of people in a romantic relationship for the long haul. Here are three such couples, who told us about the good, the bad, and the super challenging parts of their relationships.
The Couple Who Became Marriage Counselors Together
Perhaps no one takes Boykin’s advice to heart as much as Rashawn and Lori Brewster, who became licensed marriage and family therapists as a result of their own relationship issues. “Part of our story is that we became relationship therapists because we were a hot mess in the beginning stages of our dating relationship,” Lori tells us. “We really liked each other and were best friends, but we struggled when dating.” They stumbled when it came to things like effective communication, and they realized they needed help.
“We did a lot of reading and research on relationships, and loved the work so much that we went to grad school together,” she says. Though their trajectory isn’t traditional, they’ve experienced many of the same hardships that anyone in a long-term partnership goes through.
The Brewsters met while working together in 2004, started dating in 2006, and got married in 2011. They don't have kids, but they have “the most amazing” mini goldendoodle, Ella.
In their marriage, Lori says they’ve found the sublime in the quotidian. “A happy marriage doesn’t have to be about grand gestures — it’s often about the daily interactions,” she says. “Every day is a new opportunity to connect, from a slap on the booty to a quick conversation.”
“In a nutshell, some of the things that allow us to be successful as a couple are that we never stop working on our relationship, we always date each other, and we always look for ways to surprise each other and keep the relationship fresh,” Lori says. “We've also surrounded ourselves with a [group] of couples that are like-minded.”
It’s not like a great marriage just happens by accident. “We are big believers in doing the work to set yourself up for success — we read books on relationships, did premarital counseling, and we developed relationships with other couples committed to maintaining a healthy marriage,” Lori says. “We have a community of couples that we do life with. We all strive to be authentic with the trials, from fertility issues to health concerns to struggles with conflict, and we are proactive in support and solutions.”
In the end, the Brewsters have come to look at their marriage like “the amazing after-party following the wedding,” Lori says. “And, like any good after-party, we don’t want it to end!”
The Couple Who Met Young (And Let Each Other Grow Up)
Alyza and Tamiah Brevard-Rodriguez have been married for six years, together for 10. They met when they were young — as Alyza puts it, “It's crazy to me that we have been together since I was 22 years old.” They have one daughter together, Aubriel, who’s 2. “We did IVF to conceive her. She's my egg, but my wife carried her,” Alyza tells us.
Like any long-term pair, they’ve had their share of challenges. “I got deployed six months into being married, so we went from the honeymoon to distance overnight, and that was a serious adjustment,” Alyza says. Much like the other two couples we spoke with, they pulled through with a little help from a therapist.
“When I came home, that was our first experience with marriage counseling,” Alyza says. “I'm proud that we didn’t give up, and we kept working at it.”
Before they had a child together, they made sure that any outstanding problems that came up while they were dealing with a long-distance relationship were addressed and solved. “We made sure we were fixed before we brought a child into the picture,” Alyza says. “A lot of couples think the child fixes the relationship, and it doesn’t. You must truly put the work into your marriage first.”
Letting each other evolve has been a big part of this process. “The biggest thing is we have allowed each other to grow — and grow up,” Alyza says. “It isn’t about changing the person, but more about falling in love with the growth you experience alone and together. I’m a much different person than I was when we first started dating and so is my spouse.”
Alyza also echoes the advice that Boykin shared. “We’ve made it work long-term by appreciating the growth we’ve experienced alone and together, instead of trying to change one another or letting that growth force us to grow apart,” Alyza says. “We’ve been different versions of ourselves in the last 10 years, but we’ve continued to stay connected, and appreciate and adjust to all of the variations of our personalities that have developed and shifted over the years.”
Specifically, Alyza and Tamiah have stayed connected by taking care of themselves. “Exercising self-care and self-love is important,” Alyza says. “When you’re at peace with yourself, the name-calling and things we do to hurt one another will be eliminated. The reality is 90% of the time, we don’t really mean the hurtful things we say — we’re just upset in the moment.”
The Couple Who Has Married Each Other 7 Times
Annmarie Kelly and Joseph Eagle have taken a new tack on marriage altogether. Hold onto your hat: Annmarie and Joseph just celebrated the third anniversary of their seventh marriage. Yes, you read that right: They’ve technically been married 33 years, but they don’t look at it that way.
“We met on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1985,” Annmarie tells us. “The nontraditional part of our partnership is that we only get married for five years” at a time. “What that means is, as we near the end of a five-year marriage, we evaluate the marriage, share where we want to go in the next five years, and decide if we want to go there together. Then, we make plans, think about our agreements — what works and what doesn’t — and create new agreements or renegotiate old ones.”
But they don’t stop there. Annmarie and Joseph “spiritually” end each marriage and start anew every five years, honoring the moment with a ceremony and sometimes a party. They think of each of their marriages as a separate entity, distinct in its own way, and they have never split up between marriages. “Each one of our marriages has been different,” Annmarie says. “Each one had at least one tough challenge — money, business, caregiving, health, hitting a ‘wall’ that led us to counseling.”
Through it all, they’ve learned a thing or two. They ran into problems in their second marriage — technically between years five and 10 — and the way their marriage was structured was beneficial. “Therapy was a big help, but Joseph later said he probably would not have gone to therapy if it wasn't for our five-year marriage,” Annmarie says.
“We learned things in our second marriage, and through therapy together, and started doing them,” Annmarie says. The takeaway? “Respect is more important for the emotional safety that leads to the true intimacy most people want in a marriage,” she says. “You can love someone to pieces, but a lack of respect leads to resentment and takes tiny bites out of that love — until there is no love left.”
Therapy really was key for them. “I’ve heard from a lot of women who wanted to go for therapy and her spouse resisted — until she was done and heading for divorce, and then he was willing, but it was too late,” Annmarie says. “Joseph and I didn't then, and still don't, have ‘forever’ or ‘until death’ to fix it — we had two and a half years.”
They moved through their issues together, and Annmarie says the secret to their success really lies in never taking their relationship or its future for granted. Sounds like we could all take a page from their playbook.